Transit Cycles, Arizona: Bike Art and Bikepacking
We call in at Transit Cycles to talk to owner Duncan Benning about all things cycling in Tucson, Arizona: bikes, bottle art, great places to ride, and building a bikepacking community…
To those unfamiliar with the American Southwest, the city of Tucson lies on the fringes of the Arizona-Sonora Desert, just 60 miles from the Mexican border. It’s a sprawling city set along the backdrop of arid mountains speckled with saguaro cacti, and blessed with a warming sun and clear skies come winter. With temperatures often hovering around the 70°F (21°C) mark at a time when much of the rest of the US is experiencing a deep freeze, Tucson is becoming a winter hub for road riders, gravel riders, and mountain bikers alike. This, along with a burgeoning everyday bicycle culture, has helped ensure it’s regularly ranked among the top ten cycling cities in the US.
As buying habits move online, it’s important to remember that community-orientated bikes shops are a key ingredient to any local growth in cycling. In Tucson’s case, Transit Cycles is definitely one of them. In a recent Rider and Rig, we chatted to Monique, one of the shop’s employees. This time, we’re catching up with owner and manager Duncan Benning to talk all things Tucson, bikes, and bikepacking.
To begin, can you talk us through a short history of Transit Cycles?
Transit Cycles opened on January 31st, 2014, so we’ve recently celebrated our five-year anniversary. Originally I was expecting to primarily sell city bikes, cargo bikes, kids bikes, and few touring bikes here and there. I opened the doors as the only employee and wanted to sell as many US-made products as possible that were made in the US, and if possible, from businesses within the bike world that are owned by minorities.
The whole touring/bikepacking/adventure bike thing has really caused something of a shift within the bike industry. To me, this has meant that it’s so much easier to get a bike that is far more practical for most people to buy. This prompted a bit of a shift for us, as we saw fewer younger buyers looking at city and commuter specific bikes, and instead exploring the idea of travel by bike as both recreation and a better way to get around in general.
It’s great to see artwork and bicycles in the same space. Speaking of which, we love the artwork featured on your Transit Cycles water bottles…
Well, as much as I am a fan of bikes, I’m probably actually a bigger fan of bike shops and the culture that comes from them. As silly as it may sound, one of the things I was most excited about when I was getting the shop open was what our shop bottle would be. It just so happens that we know a lot of artists and graphic designers here in town. After ordering our first batch of simple bottles with just the shop logo on them, I realized that I wanted to do something a bit more exciting, so we have had five or six different artists from Tucson (or with Tucson roots) do some art for us or design a bottle. We do a single run and once they sell out they are gone. The art for our five-year anniversary bottles was done by a good friend and customer named Racheal Rios who grew up not far from where the shop is now and whose art I’m a huge fan of.
Has bike touring and bikepacking always been part of your cycling life? Or is it something you discovered recently?
Cycling was a big part of the town I grew up in. Not in any sort of exceptional way, there were just always bikes around. People riding all sorts of bikes and for all sorts of different purposes. I often saw folks with loaded bikes heading out for weekend camping in the various parks in Southern Ohio. I can’t remember how old I was the first time I jammed some stuff into a backpack and rode out and did my own trip. It was just sort of something that happened, probably sometime in high school. I didn’t really have any camping gear of my own, so I didn’t do it too often. And by the time I graduated high school I had stopped trying to get out for trips.
I began working in shops when I was 19, and there always seemed to be folks around – either regular customers or fellow employees – who were basically just biding their time and saving money until they could get out for their next trip. I was always fascinated by where they were going, how they carried their stuff, and what they chose to take or leave behind. I didn’t really start doing trips again until more recently, after I opened the shop. It worked out to be a quick and easy way to escape for an evening or two when I could get away for some time off.
Your shop curates some choice bikepacking gear, including bags, cooking ware, and I even spotted a copy of The Bikepacking Journal! Tell us how you choose what to stock…
I have an appreciation for sewing. My mom had her own clothing brand when I was small and made her own clothing for many years after she closed that business down. When I was opening Transit I was excited to offer a broad range of options for bags because it was a category that I felt Tucson was missing. Five years ago when we were opening up the shop, there seemed to be a good number of bag makers emerging or hitting their stride across the industry, many of whom offered pretty unique twists on things. A lot of the items I sell in the shop are things that I have used myself at some point or another.
I love Oveja Negra’s seat bags, for instance. The sizes they use are great because they are a touch smaller than a lot of the other stuff out there. This keeps over packing and seat bag “wag” to a minimum or eliminates it all together. I really enjoy how Swift Industries mixes classic lines of their rando bags with modern materials, and its been really fun to see them introduce new stuff like their Elwha hip bag/handlebar harness. It is very well made and well executed, not to mention super unique. Road Runner Bags offers a great combination of colors in their Burrito and Burrito Supreme bags that brings a lot of folks in the door, and the bags work really well for a broad range of riders, from commuters looking for a little more space for their daily needs to the roadie looking for a way to carry layers and snacks for their long winter training miles.
Do you organise shop campouts? Seems like you have some wonderful scenery in every direction, much all of which can be reach by traffic-free bike paths.
We do try to do a handful of bike camping trips a year, both touring and bikepacking-style trips. Moving the shop last year meant we weren’t able to do any, but we are planning on offering a few different options this spring. We usually do trips that are good for first timers, but we will likely offer some bigger mileage trips this fall for folks who are a little more advanced. We have also participated in Swift Campout every year we’ve been open. We go and ride up Mount Lemmon because the desert floor tends to be a bit warm around the Summer Solstice. Last year we had two different routes, our traditional route up the front side of the mountain on Mt. Lemmon Highway, and we had a small group of folks who came up the backside of the mountain from the area near Peppersauce Campground. They rode mostly the dirt control road up the backside of the mountain.
What are your personal bikepacking rigs?
I recently put together an All-City Gorilla Monsoon that I like to use for stuff that is more dirt road oriented. It is a really fun bike and allows me to ride just about everywhere, from trails to roads. It’s much faster than the MTB on the road but still capable on the trail. I love it. I also ride a Salsa Timberjack that I swap a rigid fork onto for bikepacking trips on singletrack. I ride that with 29ers most of the time, but I also have a set of 27.5 plus wheels that I run when I feel the need.
Given the mixed conditions in your backyard – from sand, to chunk, to gravel – what kind of bike do you tend to recommend for bikepacking?
To me, it really comes down to where you want to do the majority of your riding. Our trails tend to be pretty chunky, so unless you really like to underbike, I would usually recommend something more mountain bikey if you’re going to spend the majority of your time on singletrack. Some along the lines of the Salsa Timberjack or an ECR, Ogre, or Bridge Club from Surly. If you only plan on the occasional singletrack but want to put most of your miles on gravel roads and pavement, then I think the All-City Gorilla Monsoon, Salsa Vaya, or Journeyman make a lot of sense.
Can you recommend any short bikepacking trips out of town for weekend visitors?
A great option, though maybe a little tougher in terms of mileage and climbing, is to ride out Reddington Road and up the backside of Mt. Lemmon. It’s hard to match the level of diversity in the environments you will see while ascending from desert cactus to the fir trees on top of the mountain. You can also pedal out to segments of the AZT and do a more mellow out and back.
I would add that Sabino Canyon can be a great spot for a short walk/hike to great spots to soak in a stream, depending on time of year and weather.
How about good places to eat, drink, and recuperate post trip?
As many options as there are for rides, this is a far more difficult question! There is a huge range of options, so I am going to break out by category. Coffee: Presta Coffee (two locations, but I’ll always love the original, located at Mercado San Augustin), Exo Coffee, Hermosa Coffee. Drinks: Tap & Bottle, WestBound, 47 Scott. Tacos/Sonoran Food: La Estrella Bakery, Rollies, Tacos Apson, BK’s, Mi Nidito. Breakfast: 5 Points Market, The Cup Cafe, Welcome Diner.
Be sure to check out Transit Cycles on your next trip to Tucson. It’s situated north of Menlo Park, just off the ‘Loop‘, within a complex of small scale businesses set in revitalised shipping containers, including a coffee shop, a burger joint, local art curators, and of course, a great bike shop.